The countryside gradually flattened as we moved south, and as we rounded a final hill, the scene hidden from our Detection revealed itself all at once. The wagon that had passed us just minutes before was flipped on its side, with three of its four wheels completely shattered. The massacred bodies of the two horses that had drawn the carriage were spread across the road in multiple pieces, seemingly chopped in half, and the scene was painted in a bright red coat of blood. Nearly a dozen yards from the wreckage were the bodies of the driver and bodyguard who had ridden on the front bench, each with a gaping stab wound through their chests much larger than any traditional blade could make. As we sprinted towards the scene, the carriage groaned and began to tip in our direction.
We skidded to a stop a dozen yards away as the source of the disturbance began to emerge. A pair of long, bloody scythes appeared from the opposite side of the wagon, crunching against the wooden frame as they pulled against it. The gleaming blades were attached to thin, spindly limbs covered in a sickly orange chitin mottled with dark purple veins, which hauled the full mass of the creature into view atop the wagon. Its body appeared to be an unremarkable ovoid mass of chitin, four feet long and featureless apart from a small ridge that ran along the midline of its back. The back legs of the creature looked almost canid in nature, with two points of articulation and distended, clawed feet that tapped softly against the wooden door beneath it.
While the sight of the beast was truly grotesque to behold, the most unsettling aspect of it was the silence. It made nearly no noise as it moved, and seemed to lack a mouth with which to make sounds that I instinctively associated with a living creature, breathing chief among them. Instead, the monster simply existed in its silence, its central body bobbing gently up and down between its long legs as it observed us with its eyeless, earless form. I felt a wave of horror flood over me through my link with Lia, and I fought it back with an emotionless, empty calm. Fear comes later.
A piercing shriek echoed out from the upturned cart, and the beast suddenly sprang to life. Its curled hind legs kicked off from the wagon, ripping the top third of the structure apart as it launched towards us with both scythes raised above it. Lia sprang backwards away from the strike, just in time for the massive blade to bury itself in the dirt where she had stood. I sidestepped and caught the attack against my sword to gain an initial estimation of our unknown foe’s strength. The blow pushed my braced feet back through the dirt as we struggled against each other, and I could immediately tell that the monster was far stronger than any normal human.
When it became apparent that I wasn’t dead, the beast wrenched its bladed arm backwards. I felt a sudden yank on my sword as it was wrenched from my grip and thrown to the ground beneath the monster’s bulbous body. As I dodged a second swipe from its opposite arm, I noticed the source of my difficulties; five elongated serrations lined the tip of each scythe, perfectly positioned to catch and shred unsuspecting victims such as myself. My sword flashed back to my hand as I hopped away and confirmed the information with Lia. We regrouped shoulder to shoulder a few yards away from the beast, weapons held out at the ready again.
Split and flank. Joints are always weakest. The thought echoed through our mental link, though I had lost the sense of self to determine who had thought it. We split in unison, each dashing in opposite directions in tight arcs just outside of slashing range of the beast. It skittered in place like a spider, spinning to keep its blade-side facing in my direction. When Lia and I were in position, I lunged forward with a stab aimed at its center mass, while she dove in for a strike against one of its hind legs.
The monster knocked my attack off course with a sweep of its scythe, then planted its other bladed arm firmly in the ground between us. I heard a sickening series of snaps as it shifted its entire weight onto the limb, freeing both of its back legs to kick out at Lia with all ten of its razor sharp claws. She slid beneath the swipe on her knees, rising back to her feet with an arcing slash a moment later. The attack just missed the beast’s leg as it turned end over end, scuttling a few yards away from us to regain its composure. The flip left the monster upside down, with each of its limbs hideously contorted to continue holding it upright.
It performed the maneuver to right itself once again, flipping around on a single scythe while its remaining limbs snapped back into their proper places. The motion was sickening enough on its own, but it revealed a detail of the monster’s body previously hidden from our eyes that made our blood run cold; two circular, fist-sized depressions were situated on the beast’s undercarriage, positioned just above a gaping mouth lined with rows of bloody teeth. Bile rose in the back of our throats, but an echoing thought kept us composed enough to continue fighting. Fear comes later.
We sprinted out in the same formation a second time, encircling the monster with our blades ready. Catch it when it withdraws. Don’t stop until it’s dead. The monster turned its scythes in Lia’s direction as we charged, and we swapped our roles flawlessly on the fly; she caught its counterattack between her two blades while I slashed at its back legs, spinning out of the way of the kick we already knew was coming. I was already advancing as it began its flip, and I hurled my sword over Lia’s shoulder to catch the beast dead center in its chitinous chest. The blade cracked through the hardened shell and buried itself to the hilt, the tip of the blade emerging in a splash of dark purple ichor on the other side.
Lia dashed ahead while the monster reeled, teetering back and forth on unsteady, twisted limbs. Her swords slashed in a whirlwind of onyx steel, severing both of the beast’s bladed forearms just above the joint where its natural armor was weakest. The momentum of her attacks launched her into a graceful flip over the creature’s body as it collapsed forward in a fountain of thick, purple blood. Her blades flashed as she twirled through the air and merged into a unified greatsword, which she plunged into the beast’s body with both hands as she landed behind it.
Stepping between the dismembered scythes that remained lodged in the ground before me, I took a firm grip on the handle of my bastard sword. We ripped our blades free with a synchronized flourish, sending a final, violent shake through the beast before it fell to the ground and lay motionless in its expanding pool of dark ichor. As soon as the beast was motionless, the oppressive force that had held our Detection at bay vanished, and we scanned the surrounding area with a burst of energy that nearly maxed our mental processing capabilities.
Though the scene around us was filled with death, two dim lights remained apart from our own within the upturned wagon. Lyn was curled up in a corner of the wreckage, weeping silently over Layne’s body in her lap. His chest was torn open in a single, deep cut that ran from his shoulder to his opposite hip. Across from her, Miles laid unmoving beneath a pile of broken wood and shattered glass, shielding his grandmother in his arms. A faint sparkle of dark blue energy in his core and the shallow rise and fall of his chest indicated he was alive, but Llewellyn’s body was devoid of light beneath him, a single break in her cervical vertebrae the only indication of trauma from the entire ordeal.
With the landscape around us finally revealed, it was easy to see where the beast had come from. A litany of pockmarks tracked back and forth from the road to a thicket of trees a few miles away, accompanied by multiple rows of long scrapes and wagon wheel ruts. All of the tracks led to a large burrow hidden in the side of a hill beneath the shadow of the trees, which clearly served as the monster’s den. The shattered remains of over a dozen wagons lined the burrow, many of which were marked with the Three Barrels insignia. While the trade goods in the wagons remained relatively intact, the passengers did not; a scattering of human bones lined the floor of the space, all entirely cleaned of their flesh and emptied of their marrow.
Between the abhorrent fate of Elise’s men and the deaths of Layne and Llewellyn, the information our Detection relayed to us from the corpse of the monster at our feet took an extra moment to process. When our consciousness shifted to the beast’s remains, a horrible feeling of revulsion churned in our guts, and I found myself falling to my knees and vomiting as Lia’s visceral reaction bled over into my body as well. I fought back against the terror in our mental link as I stumbled to Lia’s side and held the hair from her face as she continued to retch up bile.
Beneath the horrible mutations and thick layers of chitin, it was unmistakably clear that the monster had, at some point, been a human. The central body was actually much smaller than it initially appeared, with massively thick layers of natural armor making up the majority of the bulk and protecting a leathery layer of skin underneath. A roughly humanoid torso sat at the center of the beast, housing a normal suite of organs in their usual places. The five serrated razors at the end of each scythe still held traces of knuckle bones, now barbed and ossified in place. Above everything, the skull was the most telling of the monster’s origins: apart from the distended jaw and slightly larger size, it was nearly unchanged from that of a normal person. The two strange indentations above its mouth were the vestigial remnants of the skull's eye sockets, long abandoned in favor of whatever form of perception the creature had used.
“Lia...look at me, Lia...please,” I panted, fighting back both of our panic responses at once. Her shoulders trembled beneath my hands as she swayed perilously back and forth.
“Lux,” she whispered, still staring at the ground. “Why is...how did...Lux, I don’t understand…” I looped my hands under her arms and helped her up to a sitting position, then knelt in the dirt in front of her. Her eyes stared vacantly past my head to the bloodied, broken corpse behind us. “It’s...that thing, it’s—”
“Look at me, Lia,” I repeated, more firmly than before. Her head turned suddenly to meet my gaze as my voice snapped her out of her stupor. “Our fight isn’t over yet. Lyn still needs our help. Miles still needs our help. We can’t do that if we let our emotions take over.” As I spoke, I felt a fresh wave of terror and revulsion wash over us as the distorted form of the monster flashed in perfect detail behind my eyes. “Fear comes later. Right now, we have to act.” I struggled against the tide of emotions, pushing as much down into the deeper layers of my psyche and away from Lia’s consciousness as I could. “I can’t do this alone, Lia.”
There was a long moment of silence as she stared into my eyes, struggling to process the entirety of our situation. She began to take a series of deep breaths in through her nose, exhaling sharply through her mouth after a second of hesitation. The shaking in her shoulders gradually grew still, and her face relaxed until it had shed every sign of the fear that had gripped us. “You’re not alone,” she said eventually, giving me a weak smile. I’m here with you. Her voice in my head spoke more confidently than the one that reached my ears.
“I know,” I answered. I brushed my hand gently along her cheek, experiencing the gesture from both of our perspectives at once. I’m here with you, too. The strength of our shared connection was more apparent than ever as our adrenaline receded, and without the intense focus of battle driving us, I found it momentarily difficult to control my own body without influencing Lia’s movements as well as I tried to stand. “I’m going to clean up out here,” I said as we stumbled to our feet. “Can you look after Lyn and Miles?”
She nodded, turning her gaze to the upturned wagon and the scene waiting inside. I gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder as I turned to go, but she grabbed my arm and stopped me in place. Her hand wrapped up to the back of my head as she pulled my head down towards hers, knocking our foreheads together. Her free hand twined its fingers between mine as she held my head tightly against hers. There were no words shared through our mental link, but I saw a quick series of memories flash in my head. Eating dinner with Elise. Walking with our new friends. Sparring together with Marin. My sleeping head in her lap. Our home in the woods.
I gave her a single word in reply. Forever. She gave my neck a final squeeze before she released me and slipped around my side, glancing at the beast behind us one final time. Her nose wrinkled, and she shook her head and looked away back towards the wagon. I moved to the front of the beast and gathered its dismembered scythes, jammed them into the armored midsection for safekeeping, then returned to its rear to grab its remaining legs and haul it off the road. As I began my jog, I noted with some discomfort that the beast was significantly heavier than it appeared to be, at least three times my own weight. The armored leg felt like plate armor through my gloves, apart from a slightly sticky substance that seemed to cover the entirety of the monster’s shell.
As I ran the body back towards its hollow, Lia climbed to the top of the overturned wagon and peered down into its ruined hold. A terrified scream echoed back at her as Lyn pulled herself further into the wreckage, concealing herself and her husband with a fallen curtain. “Lyn, it’s okay,” Lia called out softly, “it’s me. It’s Lia.” She slipped down from her perch into the wagon’s interior, boots crunching in a thin layer of glass shards.
The curtain slipped a few inches, and Lyn peaked out over the edge, her kind eyes bloodshot and puffy. “Lia?” she asked, her voice cracking as she dropped her cloth shield. “Lia?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” she answered with a reassuring smile. “Are you hurt, Lyn?”
She blinked slowly, looking cautiously around the wagon. “I-I don’t know,” she started. “We were just...driving. And then, the horses screamed, and the...the wagon, it just flipped. Flipped over. And then, there were these…” Her eyes grew wide as she remembered the details of her own story, and her movements became more erratic as she continually scanned her surroundings. “These blades, they came right through the walls, and...and then…” She froze in place for a moment before letting out a pained wail. “They’re all dead! They’re DEAD! Miles, and Gran, and…” she pulled Layne’s body closer to her chest and screamed again, burying her face in his bloodied neck.
Lia knelt down beside the pile of debris that covered Miles and Llewellyn, pushing aside broken wood and seat cushions until head and shoulders were clear. She placed a hand on the back of his neck and activated the Healing rune within her ring. A sparkling green light shimmered over his body as it worked to mend the cuts and scrapes on his exposed skin, as well as the swelling in his head from the blow that had knocked him out. He gasped loudly as his consciousness returned to him and threw himself backwards, landing awkwardly in Lia’s awaiting arms. His chest heaved as he fought to regain his situational awareness, only slowing when he caught sight of Lyn and Layne across from him. “Lyn,” he whispered, stunned.
The sound was lost beneath her mourning cries, but the sudden movement drew her attention. “Miles?” she sniffled, her lips trembling as they formed traces of a smile. “You’re not…” Her breath ran out, and she gasped silently for a moment. “Oh, Miles…”
Lia helped him to his feet, and he limped the few steps across to where Lyn had hidden herself. His shoulders began to shake, and he sank to his knees before her. “I’m sorry, Lyn. This is all...my fault,” he choked out as he began to sob.
“No, no,” Lyn replied, shaking her head, “no, that’s not true.” A fresh wave of tears rolled down her face as she reached out and brushed the dark blonde hair from his eyes. She pulled him forward into a tight hug, and the pair cried quietly in each other’s arms.
Their sadness welled up in Lia’s chest, and her vision grew hazy as she wiped tears from her eyes. I don’t know what to do, Lux.
You don’t have to do anything, I answered. We can’t fix this for them. They just need time now; a lot of it. The yawning abyss of the monster’s den waited in front of me, with a steep dirt slope leading down into a pitch black cavern. I rolled my shoulders and hauled on the back leg of the dead beast as we descended into the blackness. My Detection revealed everything I needed to see: the space was nearly ten feet high at its tallest point and formed a roughly circular room about twenty feet in diameter. The rough, uneven floor was littered with human bones, and the walls of the room were lined with the remnants of Elise's caravans, as well as smaller carts and wheelbarrows. Why would it collect this stuff?
I’m not sure. Lia’s voice startled me as I stood alone in the dark, surveying the scene.
Sorry, I was just...thinking aloud, I guess. I’m not used to whatever we’ve got going on here yet. I pursed my lips and rubbed my temples. It was disorienting to wade through our collective consciousness, but I refused to consider an attempt at decoupling our minds; whatever drawbacks the link held were massively outweighed by the sense of comfort we both shared being together. I let out a frustrated sigh as I gave up on parsing the reason behind the ruined collection and moved on to a different line of thinking.
Whatever this thing was, it was alone; the den isn’t large enough for two of them. All of the tracks outside go from here to the road and back without detours, so it isn’t working with another one living somewhere else. But...I sent a powerful wave of mana throughout the cavern and suffused it into the walls and floor. Where did it come from? There aren’t any tunnels coming up through the ground.
Lux, you know where it’s from. Lia tugged on the memory I was actively repressing and pushed it to the forefront of our minds: Val’s face, unflinching against the cold steel of my sword on her neck as she spoke her warning. It came from Shadowmine.
It was obvious that she was right, but it wasn’t a train of thought I wanted to pursue, so I instead busied myself with the task of cleaning the cave. I stacked the bones in a large pile opposite the caravans, then heaved the monster’s corpse on top of it. Wherever it came from, it’s dead now. That’s what matters. A rune glinted on my ring, and the pyre burst into brilliant crimson flames. I watched with grim delight as the creature’s chitin began to blister and crack against the heat, though the process was much slower than I would have liked. A surge of energy rushed out from my core and fed the flames, further brightening the dark cave with ominous red light.
I stood in place and watched the blaze consume the bones and beast alike. Though the act was deeply cathartic, I couldn’t help but feel angry as the monster’s remnants turned to ash. The thought that it had originated in Kaldan, more than likely due to Virram’s twisted influence, turned my stomach and set my heart racing. I sneered as the cave returned to darkness, leaving nothing but a hard, blackened spot where the pyre had been. Without looking back, I turned and left the burrow, emerging back into fresh air and a dimming, twilight sky.
Are you okay?
Are you sure?
A new flame flickered to life in my gut as I felt suddenly ashamed of the emotional outburst. Yeah, I’m sure. My eyes peered down to my gloved hand, where the jagged, black scars hid somewhere underneath, reminding me of my failures. Sorry. I’m on my way back now. I sprinted back across the field, arriving at the wagon as Lia was helping Lyn out from the wreckage. Lia set her gently on the ground beside me before jumping back in to retrieve Miles. When Lyn recognized me, she immediately lunged forward and wrapped her arms around my chest, threatening to crush my ribs as she cried into my shoulder. Lia deposited Miles a few moments later. He gave me a long, empty stare, then nodded absentmindedly as he half leaned, half collapsed against the side of the wagon.
What do I do with Layne and Llewellyn? The question echoed in my head, sparing our friends the thought of their lost loved ones’ bodies.
Lay them out on the opposite side of the wagon. I’ll make a sledge out of what's left of itthe wagon so we can bring them with us.
Lia sprang into action as I remained in the road, quietly consoling Lyn. Where are we going now? What...what do we do? Lia asked as she extricated the bodies from the carriage and placed them reverently at the roadside.
We need to take them back to Lienna. We’ll find someone there who can help them, and someone who can...look after Layne and Llewellyn’s needs. I paused as I encountered a gap in my knowledge. Unity has some sort of funeral rights, I assume? A series of images flashed through my head, all fragments of Lia’s memories from various ceremonies she had witnessed throughout her life. Men in vibrantly colored robes spoke over interred bodies before crowds of mourners, with the rites always ending with either a funeral pyre or a burial procession.
We each finished our grim work in turn; Lia traded places with me when the bodies were ready, and I set to work dismantling the wagon. A few well-placed Shatter spells shaped the floor of the carriage into a solid, appropriately sized base for the sledge, and the iron axles bent into passable runners. After carefully securing Layne and Llewellyn to the sledge, I draped a curtain over their bodies and retrieved one of the horse’s bridles, which I fashioned into a handle with which to drag the sled behind me.
I returned to the group when my work was finished. “Miles. Lyn,” I said, nodding to each of them. “We’re going to head back to Lienna now, okay? We’ll find someone there who can help you.”
Miles shook his head. “What if that...that thing comes back?” His eyes tracked wildly over the horizon as he scanned for the beast’s return.
“It’s dead, Miles. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“What was it?” Lyn asked, sheltering herself closely behind Lia’s shoulder.
I shook my head. “We don’t know. Whatever it was, it’s dead now.”
“We can’t go back now. It’s too dark, and there are still bandits out there!” Miles continued to protest, his voice growing louder as he spoke.
“There aren’t any bandits between here and Lienna,” Lia reassured him. “We took care of them, too. We’ll be okay, I promise.”
“You can’t just tell us that everything is going to be okay!” he yelled suddenly, stomping his foot in the dirt. “Everything is NOT okay! WE are NOT okay!” Tears streamed down his cheeks from beneath his overhanging bangs.
I took another step closer to him, cautiously reaching out a hand. “I know, Miles. What happened to all of you was terrible, and I’m so sorry. Nobody should have to experience something like that, but especially not kind, caring people like you.” I motioned towards Lia and Lyn. “We can’t just stay here in the middle of the road forever, though. Lia and I will get you all back to Lienna before dawn, and you can choose what you do from there: stay in town, go home, even come back and stay with us.”
He swatted my hand away as he shifted towards me, his nostrils flaring. “How can you just stand there and act like everything is normal?! You can’t get us back to Lienna before dawn, and even if you could, it wouldn’t...that wouldn’t…” his fists balled at his sides as he sputtered, fighting to keep his speech coherent. “You don’t even care that they’re dead, do you?! You’re just standing there, acting like this is a normal day while half our family was just killed! You don’t even care!”
“Miles, stop it!” Lyn shouted. “They’re trying to help us!”
“No!” he seethed. “Gran was right about you. She said you were nothing but trouble, and that we should have left you at the roadside and gone on alone. But Layne vouched for you. He said you were his friend, and that you were a good person.” His face morphed into a hard sneer as he stared me down, and he took a braver stance as he jabbed at my chest. “He was wrong. You clearly weren’t his friend at all. You don’t give a shit about any of us, and you never did.”
My jaw clenched as I silently took the verbal battering. While he was clearly overcome with grief, I still knew that some part of him believed what he was saying, and a part of me believed it as well. From the moment our Detection had come back to us and the devastation within their cart had been revealed, I had felt nothing but cold detachment towards Layne’s death. A creeping sadness spread up through my chest as I realized I hadn’t spent a single moment in mourning for the man that had quickly become one of my closest friends.
The silence seemed to only anger Miles further. “SAY SOMETHING!” he screamed as he pulled his arm back and threw a clumsy punch in my direction. Although I had every opportunity to avoid the attack, I simply activated my Pain Reduction and Strength enhancements and let the blow land. His fist impacted against my jaw and found it entirely unyielding, creating three fractures across his hand as the punch bounced away, leaving me entirely unharmed. He roared in pain as he clutched his wounded hand, and he stared up at me with a new expression: fear. Lyn cried out and moved to run to his aid, but Lia gently held out her arm and blocked her path.
I leaned down to his ear with deliberate slowness and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Lyn is going to need someone to help her through this,” I whispered. “That can be you, or it can be Lia and myself. We’re taking her back to Lienna tonight, and you’re welcome to join us. Or, if you’d like, I can leave you and your grandmother here on the roadside. It’s your choice.” My hand tightened around his quivering shoulder as my voice dropped to a nearly inaudible hiss. “My respect for Layne is the only thing stopping me from breaking more than just your hand. Consider that while you make your decision.”
He sucked in a rasping breath as his body tensed beneath my griphand. His good hand balled into a fist, then relaxed in quick succession as the fight seemed to drain from his body all at once. “Fine,” he murmured, his shoulders slumping, “do what you want. I’ll come.”
“Good,” I nodded, giving him a reassuring pat on the arm. “Lia, can you look at his hand for me?” I was planning to carry him and the sledge, but given...all of that, I think I’ll carry Lyn instead.
Okay. Lia’s answer echoed in my head as we passed on another on the road. “Miles, can I see your hand, please?” He offered it out weakly as she approached, and she held it between hers, channeling a small burst of healing magic into his fractured bones. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand and furrowed his brow as he carefully flexed his mended fingers.
“Lux, I’m sorry,” Lyn apologized, bowing her head. “He didn’t mean that, I know he didn’t.”
“Please, Lyn, it’s fine,” I assured her. “You’ve both been through far too much today.” I slid out of my cloak and gently draped it over her shoulders. “We’ll be heading back to Lienna now.”
“I...don’t think I can walk that far,” she admitted. “Even on a good day.”
“That’s why you won’t be walking,” I said as I turned and patted myself on the back, kneeling down slightly. “We’ll be carrying you.” She bit her lip as she paused for a moment, but eventually stepped forward and wrapped her arms around my neck. I stood and shifted her weight into a comfortable position before turning to Lia expectantly.
She turned and mimicked my actions to Miles, patting her back and bending her knees. He looked between us with raised eyebrows. “No, I’m too heavy. I’ll walk.”
“Climb on, Miles. You won’t be able to keep up otherwise,” Lia answered curtly.
“I’ll be fine if—”
“Miles, please,” Lyn called out, “just do it.”
He blinked at her in surprise, then gave her a small nod and did as he was told. When he was situated on her back, I rounded the wagon and knelt beside the shrouded sledge, retrieving the reins. “Lyn,” I said softly, looking at her out of the corner of my eye, “hold on tight, okay?” I started forward when I felt her arms tighten across my chest, rapidly accelerating from a light jog into a magic-enhanced sprint.
“Primes,” Lyn gasped as we rushed forward. She buried her face in the side of my cloak’s hood to hide from the wind that whipped past us. I wasn’t happy with the idea of showing off such a blatant display of our abilities, but my discretion was far outweighed by my desire to get Lyn and Miles to a more comfortable safety.
Lia matched my speed, taking her spot a few steps ahead of me on the road as we raced ahead through the dark. Taking advantage of our combined senses, we pushed our Detection out in two separate directions: She spread her mana out in all directions to hold a safe perimeter while I reached out straight ahead of us, scanning the entirety of the road between us and Lienna. The space was entirely empty apart from the expected wildlife, and more importantly, devoid of the caustic void the monster had created within our Detection.
Our sprint continued uninterrupted for hours, with the clear road providing optimal traveling conditions under the light of the moon. Miles and Lyn both dozed in and out of consciousness as we went, far too exhausted from the day’s events to be disturbed by the bumpy ride. We reached the outskirts of Lienna an hour before dawn and left the comfort of the road to find a more secluded waiting spot. Lia dashed ahead into the waking city to procure a room for Lyn and Miles, and to begin the arrangements necessary for Layne and Llewellyn’s funerals.
After a half hour of quiet waiting, Miles awkwardly sidled over to my lookout point at the edge of our impromptu camp. “Lux?” he asked tremulously. “Do you...have a moment?”
“Of course, Miles,” I answered, opening my eyes as I paused in my meditations. “What do you need?”
“I need to, uhm…” he trailed off, nervously glancing over his shoulder to where Lyn slept, curled in a tight ball beneath my cloak. His voice was hoarse and low when he continued. “I need to apologize. For the things I said, before. Back at the wagon.”
“No, you don’t,” I said curtly. “Miles, you experienced a really traumatic event yesterday. You lost people that you loved, and saw a lot of things that probably still don’t make sense. You had every right to be angry.”
“But not at you!” he replied. “You and Lia, you were just trying to help, and I just...said those awful things.”
“Really, it’s okay,” I emphasized. “We hardly know each other, after all. I’m just a random stranger who suddenly asked you to trust me with your lives, after everything you had seen and been through.” I looked over his shoulder to where his last remaining companion slept. “I know you were just trying to look out for Lyn.”
He spun to look at her again, then gave me a meek nod. “I just...I don’t know what we’re going to do now, Lux.”
“It’s going to take time,” I answered. “You’ll have a safe place to stay at the inn for as long as the two of you need, and the Church will take care of the rest of your affairs.”
His lips pursed. “I don’t have the money for that, though. Not with me, anyway; everything was paid for on our trip down, and I was going to be working in Ellawynn, and, of course, with bandits and the like, I didn’t want—”
I cut him off with a wave, then reached into the coin purse on my belt. “You don’t need to worry about any of that.” I fished out a fistful of golden Imperials and held my hand out to him expectantly. After a few moments of hesitation he held out an upturned palm, and I deposited the heap of coins. “Take as much time as you need, and don’t spare a single expense. For the two of you, and for Layne and your grandmother.”
“No, this is too much,” he muttered, stunned. “We could stay a month in Lienna and have a regal service with just...three of these.” He plucked three coins out of the pile in his palm and then offered the heap back to me. I crossed my arms and stared back at him, expressionless. “Then...five. We don’t need it, but we’ll take five,” he said, sifting two more coins from hand to hand.
“You’ll take the lot,” I countered. His eyes jumped from mine down to the fistful of coins and back again, then began to water as he slowly accepted the money, sliding it into his pocket. “I wasn’t lying before; Lyn is going to need someone to help her through all of this. That money is for both of you.” I gave him a hard look through narrowed eyes. “Are you up to the task?”
“Yes,” he replied immediately, with a sudden strength he had lacked before. “I can do it.”
“Good.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry that this is all we can do for you, but Lia and I have other matters to attend to now. If you ever need anything from us, just get a message to Elise Tressel from Three Barrels. She’ll pass it on to us.”
He bobbed his head in reply for a moment, then stepped forward and wrapped his arms around my chest. “Thank you, Lux,” he whispered. “You’re a good friend.”
“That means a lot, Miles,” I said, putting an arm over his shoulder and patting him on the back. He stepped away a moment later and composed himself, smoothing out his clothing and wiping the water from his eyes.
We’re almost back, Lia’s voice said in the back of my mind. My vision flashed away, replaced instantly with the view from her eyes: she walked at the back of a procession of two horse drawn carts, accompanied by a group of four women in grey, hooded robes.
Thank you, I answered, switching my sense back to my own body. “Miles, you can head out to the road now. Lia will be back soon with some women from the Church.” His eyebrows shot up for a brief moment, but he shook away the surprise and made his way out to the road from our camp. I moved to where Lyn was sleeping and knelt down beside her, shaking her gently by the shoulder.
She rose with a start, blinking up at me in confusion until the memories of our night of travel returned to her. Her normally puffy chestnut hair was momentarily deflated and stuck to the side of her face, and she took a moment to right herself. “Lux, is everything all right?” she asked, concerned.
“Yes, everything’s fine,” I answered. “Lia found the two of you a room, and brought back some women from the Church to take care of Layne and Llewellyn.”
She smiled, but the pain was clear in her eyes. “That’s very kind of you,” she said, wrapping my cloak more tightly around her shoulders as she stood up. “I’m not sure what Miles and I would have done without you.”
“It’s...best not to think about it,” I answered, unsure of what to say. “I gave Miles some money for the two of you to use while you’re here in Lienna. You can stay as long as you need.”
“Thank you for that, as well,” she said with a small nod. “I hope you won’t hold what he said last night against him.”
“Of course not. We spoke this morning and worked things out.” I looked out towards the road, watching through Lia’s eyes as he met up with her party. “He’s a good guy.”
She smiled a more genuine smile. “Yes, he’s always been a very compassionate person. Emotional, to a fault sometimes, but it’s why we love him.”
“He’s going to need your help to get through this, Lyn.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Somehow, we’ll come out of this stronger than before. Somehow.” Her eyes fell to the shrouded sledge beside us. “I don’t know what my life will look like without Layne.”
I felt a sudden, powerful flush of emotion through my chest. “I lost my wife, what seems like...lifetimes ago, now,” I said wistfully. “It’s an ache that never goes away. But it does change, over time; that pain reminds me to never take what I have for granted. I’d miss it now, if it was gone. It’s what I have left of her.”
She tilted her head to one side as she listened to my story, and a sad smile spread across her face. “Thank you,” she said quietly, reaching out to take my hand. “I hope you’re right.”
I gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze as I returned her smile. “Me too.” The sound of conversation drifted through our camp as Miles and Lia began to discuss Layne and Llewellyn’s arrangements. “We should join them,” I said, motioning to the road with my head. Lyn agreed, dropping my hand as she made her way towards the rest of our party, and I followed after her with the sledge in tow. The robed women hurried into action when we appeared at the roadside, relieving me of the sledge to transfer the bodies into more appropriate, shrouded caskets that were then loaded into the back of their carts. They spent a moment discussing the timeline of their work with Lyn and Miles before turning to make their way back to Lienna.
When they had disappeared from sight, Miles gave Lia and meI a respectful bow. “We should go as well. We need sleep, and food, and...some other things I’m sure I’m forgetting.”
“This is where we part ways, then,” I said. “I wish there was more we could do for you, but—”
“You’ve done more than enough already,” Lyn interrupted me. “We’ll be forever in your debt.”
I moved to argue, but Lia took a step forward and spoke first. “Even so, please don’t hesitate to ask us for anything. We’ll be there for you.”
“Of course,” Miles answered. “We’ll be in touch when things...settle down.”
Lia stepped forward and wrapped Lyn in a tight embrace, and the pair shared a brief series of whispers. Despite my best attempts to give them privacy, I couldn’t help but hear the exchange through Lia’s ears. “Remember what we talked about. Primes know we could do with a bit of good news,” Lyn said.
“I will,” Lia answered. “Write me some letters when you get the chance; Miles knows where to send them. I’ll send you some back if you tell me where you’re staying.”
“I will,” Lyn echoed. “There was so much more we needed to talk about.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” They shared a final moment of silence together, then broke apart. “Primes watch over you,” Lia intoned.
“And you, together,” Miles and Lyn answered in unison. Lyn slipped her arm around Miles’s waist, and the pair turned and began their trip back to the city. Lia and I moved to the roadside and sat down in the grass, watching them together through our shared Detection. We waited until they reached the inn before we withdrew the extended energy, and we both let out heavy sighs.
“So. What do we do now?” Lia asked. While the question sounded genuine, I could already feel that she knew the answer to the question.
“Lia...I know we just started our first real adventure together, but...we have to go back.”
“Yeah.” She laid back into the grass and stared up into the brightening morning sky. “I don’t know what to tell everyone back home.”
I fell back beside her with another sigh. “I know what you mean, but...that isn’t what I meant.” I pinched the bridge of my nose in annoyance as I finally accepted the truth. “We have to go back to Kaldan.”
Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!
I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!